My now fifteen year old son was with me two years ago when I caught the largest northern pike of my 47 year life. I caught it in Lake Vermillion, while fishing primarily for small mouth bass. I caught it on my ultralight, with six pound test, no steel leader, and no landing net. That made for an adventurous catch. The fish measured 36 inches in length. According to the weight charts it was about a 12 - 14 pound fish. Well my son caught the pike fever that day, and had asked me numerous times to get him out pike fishing up north again. By last winter I became convinced that a trip to the BWCA was in order, thereby scratching that itch, and one or two of my own at the same time. It had been, after all, twenty years since my last trip to the BWCA. Well, like a good little camper, I researched lakes that would offer all of the things I was looking for, including good pike fishing, and chose Horse Lake as our fishing destination. My goal was to take a half day to get to good lake, then stay there for the duration of my stay. I also wanted a place where a day trip was feasible. Lower Basswood Falls and the pictographs north of there seemed to fit that bill. Horse Lake fit the bill in both respects. I reserved my entry point permit in February, and then was chomping at the bit for months. I literally had to stop dreaming about it because I was getting all worked up, and I was still four or five months from the start of the trip. As the entry date drew near, my brother, who had worked as a linguist in Italy for the last 20 years, and had dreamed of the northern part of Minnesota for two decades, showed great interest in coming with us. I let my son decide whether or not we should invite my brother, and he decided to do so. I'm sure he, in part, wanted more than just my company for those five days. So it was settled, the three of us would go to Horse Lake in search of northern pike. I didn't care if I caught any fish at all. I was hoping very much, however, to put my son and brother on some world class northern pike. I yearned more for the solitude, peace, and beauty of the BWCA. As you will read, mission accomplished on both fronts.
Day 1 of 6
Sunday, August 17, 2008 We left the Twin Cities at about noon and headed for Ely. Lunch on the way, stopped at the Kawishiwi Ranger Station to watch “the movie” and to pick up our permit. Ranger strongly suggested that we NOT leave my gas stove behind when we went in the next day. "Never know when a fire ban might be issued," she insisted. We took her advice and did not regret it. Spent the night at the outfitter’s bunk house. All set for tomorrow.
Day 2 of 6
Monday, August 18, 2008 We got onto Mudro Lake a bit later than we had planned. By about nine o’clock we were heading for the portage to Sandpit Lake. Piece of cake. Even though we were double portaging, we made good time. Taking our time through Tin Can Mike, and finally into Horse Lake. On our way in, we had spoken to two gentlemen who had just vacated the island campsite, so our plan was to see if that site was still available. On the way, we stopped briefly at the campsite just north of the mouth of the river. It is a large site on a beautiful peninsula, and we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave it. It was there that we set up camp for what was to be the next four nights. After setting up camp, hanging the food pack, and resting a bit, we headed out for an evening of fishing. We chose to paddle towards the north end of the lake, just throwing lures at the eastern shoreline as we went. We caught a few small mouth bass, northern pike, and even one walleye. Nothing to crow too loudly about, but who cared? We were in one of the most beautiful places imaginable. Campfire in the evening. Doesn't get much better than this.
Day 3 of 6
Tuesday, August 19, 2008 We slept in, since we had stayed up a bit late around the fire the night before. Got out for some fishing from about 10:00 am until 2:00 pm. I'm on vacation, after all, and getting up early and rushing on day one did not appeal to me. Caught several fish , the biggest being my son's 4 pound northern( I meant to take a picture of him with it, but we ate it first). We explored the mouth of the river a bit. My brother and I had to get out of the sun, since the weather was unseasonably warm and the skies were clear (one of the few set-backs of being Irish, we burn easily). Couldn't afford to burn badly on the first full day. This did not sit well with my darkly complected son. I could tell he was bored hanging around the campsite in the middle of the afternoon, he wanted to be hitting the fish hard. I also needed to stretch my legs and walk on dry ground for a while. My legs and backside we starting to take beating, Sitting with legs folded as I was in the canoe for extended hours. We went fishing around the mouth of the river that evening. Nice, calm water. Gorgeous. We caught a few fish, and heard a great deal of commotion on the water on one occasion. That made us think about coming back later. We went back to camp. Built a campfire and ate fish and potatos baked in the coals. Another gorgeous evening, with lots of moonlight later(the full moon had been on the 16th). Since we are rookies at treating water with tablets, as we are, I am feeling a bit dehydrated, and prone to cramping.
Day 4 of 6
Wednesday, August 20, 2008 I decided we would take a day trip to Little Basswood Falls, and perhaps to see the Indian pictographs just north of there. We started out a bit late, and took our time fishing the first couple of pools of the upper Horse River. It was about 3:00 pm when we finally got to Basswood Lake and the Falls. I was disappointed to discover that a group of youngsters had decided that right above the Falls would be a great place to camp, thereby making their presence a part of everyone's Lower Basswood Falls experience that day. So, after taking some pictures and being there for about a half hour, we started our four hour trip back to our campsite at Horse Lake, rather than continue on to see the pictographs. In the end, we arrived back at our campsite hot, tired, sun burned, dehydrated, and hungry. I guess we bit off a bit more than we had hoped to chew that day, but since we were just doing an "in and out," I didn't think a bit of portaging was going to kill anyone. The freeze dried beef stew on Ramen noodles went down pretty well that night around the campfire.
Day 5 of 6
Thursday, August 21, 2008 We decided to dedicate this day to fishing. We got onto the lake at mid morning, and had a bit of activity early. Because it was a windy day, we chose to stay out of the wind a bit and fish the mouth of the Horse River. It was here that my son snagged what he thought was a log. I told him to treat it like a fish, as I positioned the canoe in a way that put him directly over his snag. To the surprise of all of us, his "snag" began to move back and forth across the bottom. By now he knew he had a fish, but he had no idea how big a fish it was. About ten minutes into it, the fish suddenly surfaced for the first time, right next to the canoe, and we recognized that he had caught the largest northern any of us had ever seen. We had actually brought a landing net along with us, just in case we ran into a big one. As my brother netted the fish head first, it became apparent that the net was too small, and the fish thrashed out of the net, and back into the lake. Luckily, the fish was still hooked (medium sized diving Shad Rap), and the net actually got hooked at the same time. It was on the outside of the landing net, then, that the fish was lifted out of the lake again, and into the canoe. Much thrashing ensued, and we headed for dry ground for some pictures. Afterwards, we went back to the campsite, and continued to marvel at the experience. We went out fishing that evening again, but our thoughts were still with the monster my son had caught. That evening around the campfire was especially pleasing, knowing we had a fish story of a lifetime to tell. Very much later that night, after waking very briefly to roll over on the hard ground, I heard multiple wolves howling at the wind. I contently rolled over and went back to sleep.
Day 6 of 6
Friday, August 22, 2008 We took our time packing up and getting ready to leave. It's always with mixed feelings that I leave the BWCA. On the one hand, it's a trip that I dream about for months before the date finally arrives. The days spent there are like heaven, and always pass too fast. Leaving the beauty and solitude of the BWCA for the Twin Cities and the responsibilities that await me there is never appealing. On the other hand, I'm usually ready for a comfortable chair and greasy burger by the time departure day comes. After packing up, we slowing made our way back to to Mudro Lake, paddling contently against the wind and travelling about one mile an hour. The last portage back into Mudro (I think) was brutal, but as one fellow paddler commented, "it keeps the weak away." Back to the car and civilization, we were all pretty quiet as we made our way back down the Echo Trail, reliving the last several days in our minds, and thinking about that greasy burger. Can't wait for next year's trip!